I lost one of the two most important people in my life today. I’d like to take a moment to tell you about her.
Dashiell first came into my life when she was 2 weeks old. I was in my third year of university, and she was so small I could hold her in the palm of my hand.
We’d always had cats when I was a child, but I really had no intention of getting a cat of my own. My girlfriend at the time was volunteering with the Humane Society. They needed someone to take in a mother cat with 5 new kittens, to look after them until they were large enough to be adopted out. We had a spare room in our two-bedroom basement apartment, so we put up a barrier and made them a home.
Within the first two weeks I knew we’d have to keep one of them. Possibly two. And I immediately felt a connection to Dashiell. She wasn’t the strongest or fastest kitten of the litter. She was a bit smaller than the rest, a bit clumsier, and usually the last one to climb up the cat house. But something about her character was different.
She nearly didn’t make it past her first couple months. I saw the signs of a very bad viral respiratory infection in two of the kittens, and it rapidly spread to the rest of the bunch. I knew right away the black and white one wouldn’t make it. He sat on my shoulder with his head bent in exhaustion that night, and I could smell the infection on his breath.
The Humane Society took them for the weekend, to provide medication. When we picked them up on Monday they said two had to be put down. I expected Dashiell to be one of them, because she was already quite sick. The black and white was gone, but so was a striped grey who didn’t seem to show any signs of disease. Dashiell was still there. I think they got the other grey by mistake.
We brought her back home, and she crawled off into a corner of the spare room, probably to die. I didn’t know if she’d make it through the night, and so I sat in there with her for hours, cupping her in the palms of my hands and talking to her, telling her I wanted her to stay with me, and that she would never go back to the shelter. She was still there in the morning, and her breathing was better. And we seemed to have a special bond ever since.
More people knew about Dashiell from my stories than actually knew her in person. She was shy around strangers and hid under a blanket when anyone else came into the house. That’s the impression they had of her, but it was a false one.
She was the most loving affectionate friend. She followed me from room to room and was constantly by my side. She was stubborn and insisted on doing things her way, and she was aggressive when playing with someone many times her size. I never saw her back down—she even forced my wife across the room and up onto a chair.
I never once saw her scratch. If you were teasing her and she had enough, she smacked you with her palm like a boxer. And she had a hell of a right hook for her size. She never bit either, except in play. Sometimes she would bite onto my hand and just hold there without letting go. I’d bite the skin at the back of her neck, and we’d lock eyes. She’d squeeze a bit and then I’d squeeze a bit, in a battle of wills to see who gave first. She loved that almost as much as chasing each other back and forth across the apartment. We played that game for hours, until I was soaked in sweat.
But Dashiell’s favourite time was reading time. I was a student when she came into my life, so I spent most of the day in an arm chair with my feet up, reading books or studying. I threw an afghan over my legs, and Dashiell claimed a permanent position stretched out between my shins.
Reading time became our tradition, and we stuck to it even after I started to work—50 pages every evening, and on weekends 50 pages in the morning too. When I was washing the supper dishes, Dashiell would walk over to take up a position by the armchair. She sat there patiently, waiting for me to sit and throw a blanket over my legs. Or if it was morning she waited by the sofa instead. She knew that morning reading was sofa time, and evening was always the chair. She knew my habits well.
Reading time was the best time of day for both of us, in so many different apartments and cities. We lived in 9 apartments or houses over the years, in 4 cities and 2 countries. We changed sofas and chairs, but never our habit. That was my favourite time of day too.
For those few people who did know her, Dashiell left a lasting impression.
Two years ago I nearly lost her to a terrible case of pneumonia that was resistant to all the antibiotics we tried. No one expected her to survive the night. They said that for her entire first week in the ICU that I transferred her to.
We were living in Guelph and had access to an incredible hospital where Dashiell was treated by an entire team of specialists, using better equipment than any “people hospital” in the region. She was on oxygen and heating pads to keep up her temperature; she had x-rays and ultrasounds, fluid samples and even consultations with a neurologist. I’m so thankful my income had finally started kicking in after so many years of poverty—I was able to get her the care she needed. To look after her as she’d looked after me.
Dr. Boudreau and Dr. Sabino, who oversaw her case, never gave up on her no matter how hopeless it seemed. And Dashiell fought so hard she became a bit of a legend at the Ontario Veterinary College teaching hospital in Guelph.
The staff always looked forward to Dashiell’s visits. The x-ray techs fought to be the one to work with her, and the doctors loved her because she was such a good patient. She was a gentle cat and she never complained no matter how invasive the procedure they had to perform. She never scratched or fought; she knew they were trying to help.
Despite accumulating a 222-page medical file that Spring, Dashiell came home, frail and weak but as stubborn as ever. She was so thin I could feel all her bones through her skin. But I still remember how happy she looked that first night back, when I put her under the warm blankets with me and she stretched her legs out long and popped her head up by my pillow.
We nursed her all Summer, giving her food through a tube several times per day, and months worth of antibiotics so strong they eventually destroyed the nerves in her ears. She could only hear a couple sounds after she had completely recovered, but she was alive and happy to be home again. And she had beaten the antibiotic-resistant pneumonia that nearly did her in.
Unfortunately the ultrasounds also uncovered signs of chronic renal failure—a gradual decline in kidney function that gets many old people in the end. But that condition was manageable and not life threatening, and we could slow it down by changing her diet and giving her supplements.
The following winter we boarded her at the OVC clinic for two weeks so we could go to Japan for Christmas. When the hospital staff heard she was there they all came over to see her. I received an email saying that “Dashiell had a busy holiday season,” with a steady stream of visitors. I was worried she’d be lonely, but when I went to pick her up I think she didn’t want to leave.
Dashiell bounced back from nearly 8 months of illness stronger than ever, and a year later we hopped a plane together and moved to Malta. It was her first international flight. She was fine, but I was so nervous for her I needed several gins to get through the trip.
That was a big step for us. I fulfilled a long term goal of moving to the Mediterranean. And we had finally escaped the poverty she knew all her life.
Don’t get me wrong, she always had the best I could give her, including the best nutrition. But looking back at all those photos, at all the apartments and houses we lived in over the years, I’m surprised to see how poor they looked. How run down the second hand furniture was. And how shabby my clothes. The one constant was Dashiell—always on my lap or in the room, always following close at my heels like a dog, and always the same.
She had a good life here in Malta. She loved exploring the sprawling old house I rented. And sitting in the sun in the courtyard, or in front of the portable heater in winter.
She sat in my office during the day all winter, but every day around 4pm she went down to the living room and sat patiently in front of the heater, waiting for someone to switch it on. Several of the vets who saw her said, “Dashiell is a good communicator.” She was always very clever in letting you know exactly what she wanted. Staring at the object intently, then looking at you and back at it. Or coming into the room and calling, and then leading you to the place she wanted you to go.
We had some good times here over the past year and a half, but Dashiell was finally starting to show her age.
She took a turn for the worse 5 or 6 days ago. She had ongoing issues with constipation and not eating, but this time her legs were getting increasingly weak as well, to the point where she could barely stumble around.
We took her to the vet a couple times to get subcutaneous fluids and keep her hydrated, and we were able to get a blood sample on Wednesday to find out what was going on. I was hoping for something like a potassium deficiency that could be addressed quickly. She had that when she was in the Guelph hospital for pneumonia, and the leg weakness sorted itself out within 2 days after her electrolytes were rebalanced. She’s had anemia for several years now too, which also made her weaker. It’s common in cats with chronic renal failure. She’d been looking pretty old the past few months, but she climbed the ladder to my office just last week, out of sheer stubbornness I think.
We got the test results back on Thursday, and I just wasn’t prepared for the news.
The vet said her kidneys had already completely failed. Her anemia had also gotten worse, to the point where she had half the red blood count of a normal cat. She’d gotten weaker and weaker the previous 2 or 3 days, and by Thursday she could hardly walk across the mattress without collapsing to rest. He told me she would just continue to decline, and that she had a few days at most. We could keep her comfortable during that time with fluid injections, to pee out the toxins her kidneys were no longer processing. But that was all.
I couldn’t think of her suffering just so we could have more time with her, so I asked Dr. Portelli to come over that same night and put her to sleep at home.
When he came to the house we couldn’t go through with it. Dashiell was barely responsive all day, but she perked up suddenly when I came up the stairs with the vet, sitting up like everything was normal and even trying to walk across the mattress to change position. She had a look on her face like she was genuinely wondering what all the fuss was about.
Dr Portelli took one look at her and told us to take things day by day. She wouldn’t get any better, there’s no question. But I was worried if I waited too long she’d go into painful convulsions and have a miserable end, and I wanted to do anything I could to avoid it.
He told me he had several similar cases, and he knew Dashiell well from boarding her. With her type of kidney failure she would just get more and more lethargic until she started vomiting and couldn’t keep anything down, and at that point we’d know she’d reached the end.
She had a really good night on Thursday after he left. I took her downstairs to sit on the afghan in her regular place for a nightcap and an episode of MacGyver, so she could enjoy her usual routine. And she crawled under the blanket during the night to sleep beside me, nudging my hand with her head to be petted and resting her chin on my hand. She hadn’t done that in 4 or 5 days, since she started feeling bad, but she wanted to be petted a lot that night. She was so weak but she didn’t seem to be in pain. It was so sad to see her struggle to walk. She was very stubborn and she just kept trying to do it all on her own.
She was still doing well on Friday morning, but she started running down gradually around 1pm. We brought her to the vet for some more subcutaneous fluids in the afternoon, and the visit seemed to take a lot out of her. She was barely able to drag herself around the mattress that evening, and she stopped eating even the tiny bits of food I’d been feeding her with my fingers. Her breathing was shallow and she looked uncomfortable, and I knew if she made it through the night she wouldn’t make it the next day. Unfortunately, I was right.
Dashiell died this morning—Saturday August 25th—around 6:20am.
We sat with her all evening so someone would always be with her. Her eyes were open and staring straight ahead, but she was out of it most of the time. Then at one point she looked up like she used to when she suddenly woke from sleep. She looked around as if wondering how she’d gotten to that side of the bed. And then she saw my wife on her right, and turned and saw me on her left. She turned really quickly, it seemed like she was looking for me. Then she dragged herself over so her head was near mine. She looked me in the eye for a long time, as though she wanted to say goodbye. She nudged my hand with her forehead like she always does when she wants to be petted, and I stroked her head and nose as she fell back asleep. Her breathing got more relaxed and she seemed to sleep peacefully. I kept stroking her head until she woke up 45 minutes later and became restless again.
She was struggling so hard to hold on, just like she did when she had pneumonia. But her organs were shutting down and this was a fight she couldn’t win. I stroked her head and told her it wasn’t her fault. We all get old and we all just run down. She couldn’t help it. She was still the same friend I loved for all these years. I told her I understood. And that it was okay to let go.
She was very weak by the time we went to bed. The inside of her ears were no longer pink, they were completely white because of the anemia, and her breathing was short. Then around 2:30am she somehow dragged herself to the litter box to pee and woke us up when she climbed back on the mattress. She used the last of her strength to drag herself up the mattress to lie against me, under my arm (she always liked to sleep there in the early mornings under the covers with me). I cradled her there and stroked her head, but she was so exhausted and barely responsive. I woke up a few times to check on her and she was still in the same place. She managed to pull herself up even closer, and I stroked her head for a while each time I woke. She lifted her head a bit so I knew she was still there.
I think she slept peacefully like that for about 3 hours. And then she woke suddenly at 5:40am and started to collapse. I don’t think she was even really conscious at that point. She suddenly started panting really hard through her mouth, and her tongue was sticking out and it was all white, not pink anymore, she just had no oxygen left. She tried to drag herself around on the bed, gasping to catch her breath, but her eyes were dilated and staring straight ahead so I don’t think she was in any pain.
I called the vet and we rushed her into the car and drove over immediately. It’s only 5 minutes away, and they were ready for us when we arrived. They must have stayed there overnight. I think they expected something like this.
Dr. Portelli was able to give her a shot to stabilize her breathing so she wasn’t gasping or suffocating, and they gave her a sedative to relax her. She was still staring straight ahead and seemed far away, so she wasn’t suffering. I was sitting with my face close to hers and stroking her head while they tried to make her comfortable—and then she suddenly moved her eyes and focused clearly on me. She looked me in the eyes for several seconds, so clearly and so affectionately, with all her old self. Then she looked away and her heart just stopped.
I had just told the vet to put her to sleep because I didn’t want her to suffer a long end, but he didn’t have time to even leave the room. She just slipped away on her own. The vet and his wife were surprised at how peacefully she went. They said she didn’t suffer at all towards the end. I think when her final collapse started it was in her sleep, while she was lying next to me.
She’s going to be buried in Dr. Portelli’s garden with their own family pets. They boarded Dashiell a few times and got to know and like her, so she’ll be in a good place with other pets who were loved.
I’m glad her suffering is over. It didn’t last long. She only started to get really weak on Thursday, and she died Saturday, so it was a quick decline. She was slow for a while before that, but she could pretty much get around on her own and do whatever she wanted to do. Not a bad way to end. She had just turned 17.
It’s so difficult to believe she’s not here anymore. I keep looking at the places she liked to sit each time I walk into a room. And every time I wake up in the night I listen for her breathing, to see if she needs her puffer. I see her in every room of the house, and in every ritual we used to enjoy together.
Apart from when I was traveling, Dashiell was with me constantly, all day long, for 17 years. I got her when I was 23, and now I’m 40. We’ve been together almost half my life.
I know she had a good life. She was always an equal part of everything we did, she was always involved, and we always cared for her as best we could. She knew that, and she was happy. And I know from the way she struggled so hard to be with me at the end, and from the communication in her eyes, that she loved me as much as I loved her.
I knew Dashiell was getting on in years and wouldn’t have a lot more time, but it still flattens you when it finally happens. It leaves such a hole in your life, and such a terrible ache.
But I don’t want to remember her like that. With so much sadness, and in her final brief decline. It was still my friend in there behind the weakness and the fading of her frail little body. Still the same friend I knew and loved.
I want to remember reading time. And the way she communicated to me whether she wanted to lie on my legs under the afghan, or for me to prop up my knees and make her a tent.
I want to remember the feel of her legs when she jumped up on the bed at night. And how she nudged my hand with her nose when she wanted to be petted.
I want to remember her eyes—their depth and intelligence, their beauty and kindness. And her grey fur, softer than any cat I’ve ever known. I want to remember the way she’d walk up beside me and then fall against me, leaning her weight there as she curled up in a ball. And the way she cuddled in against my neck when I picked her up.
I want to remember those things so badly. I still can’t believe I’ll never experience them again. Or that I’ll never see her again. It just doesn’t seem real.
I know anyone who has lost a friend—human or animal—understands what I mean.
I hope you’ll join me in raising a glass to Dashiell. My closest companion, and the most loyal friend I’ve ever known. I miss her so terribly, but her memory lives on.